As they announced Austrian author Peter Handke as one of the two winners of the Nobel Prize in literature for 2019, the judges at the Swedish Academy highlighted the “great artistry” in his exploration of the “periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
But as word that 76-year-old Handke had won the prize spread Thursday, many others remembered something else: Handke’s embrace of the Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic.
That relationship prompted a visceral reaction from those who remembered the violence of Milosevic’s Serbia. “This is the single most offensive possible decision,” Petrit Selimi, the former foreign minister of Kosovo, wrote on Twitter. “What’s next? Assad for Peace Prize?
Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s ambassador to Washington, called Handke “a propagator of ethnic hatred & violence” and shared a photograph of him at Milosevic’s funeral in 2006. Albania’s acting foreign minister, Gent Cakaj, wrote on Twitter that the Nobel had been awarded to “a genocide denier.”
Writers and academics also expressed unease on social media. Historian Orlando Figes wrote that he was deeply shocked that Handke had won the Nobel, describing him as a “notorious apologist for the murderous regime of Slobodan Milosevic.”
For the Nobel judges, it may be an unwelcome return to controversy. The unprecedented decision to confer two prizes this year had occurred in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that erupted in late 2017, leading to a decision to delay last year’s prize.
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk also won the prize Thursday, making her one of only 15 women to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature since it was first given out in 1901.
Both Handke and Tokarczuk are widely considered masterful writers, with the Austrian’s long and productive career dating to 1966 and his debut novel, “The Hornets.” But Handke has been dogged by his links to Serbian nationalism since the 1990s.
In 1996, Handke wrote an essay about a trip to Serbia for the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung that questioned the media’s portrayal of Serbs as the aggressor in the conflicts sparked after the collapse of the Yugoslavian state.
“In an effort to bring the war to their customers, international magazines from Time to the Nouvel Observateur relentlessly portray the Serbs as evil and the Muslims as the usual good guy,” Handke wrote.
The article was published a year after a massacre in the town of Bosnian Srebrenica after Serbian forces overran a Muslim-held enclave and killed thousands of men and boys.
When NATO allies later bombed Serbia, Handke again rose to the country’s defense. In 1999, when appearing on Serbian television, he suggested that he might like to be a “Serbian Orthodox monk fighting for Kosovo” and compared the plight of the Serbs to the persecution of Jews (he later apologized for invoking the Holocaust).
SCANDALOUS! #Nobel committee decides to award Peter Handke – a man who glorified Milosevic aka “The Butcher of The Balkans” & supported his genocidal regime – this year’s prize in litterature.
There is nothing nobel about this!
This is a is a preposterous & shameful decision pic.twitter.com/BirMYS9qgP
— Vlora Çitaku (@vloracitaku) October 10, 2019
After Milosevic died in his prison cell in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes, Handke spoke at his funeral in Serbia, telling a crowd of thousands that he was “close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.”
Handke, who was born to a German father and a Slovenian mother and raised near Austria’s border with what was then Yugoslavia, has said his family history is why he is so interested in the Balkans.
“I am a writer and not a judge,” he told the New York Times in 2006 after attending Milosevic’s funeral. “I’m a lover of Yugoslavia — not so much Serbia, but Yugoslavia — and I wanted to accompany the fall of my favorite country in Europe, and this is one of the reasons to be at the funeral.”
The links to Serbia had long earned Handke derision among his peers. Author Salman Rushdie nominated him as “moron of the year” in 1999, while David Rieff, a writer and analyst, savaged Handke’s book on Serbia in a 1997 review.
“The truth is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, except presumably, as he does throughout much of the book, when he’s talking about himself,” Rieff wrote. “He came to Serbia knowing nothing about its complicated politics and, to judge by the book, left knowing no more.”
The links had long been a problem in receiving other prizes, too. In 2006, he was nominated for Dusseldorf’s Heinrich Heine Prize, but the award was withdrawn after members of the city council objected. When he won the International Ibsen Award in 2014, one academic compared it to awarding Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels the “Immanuel Kant Prize.”
Handke did go on to accept the Ibsen in Oslo and in a defensive acceptance speech told his critics to “go to hell.” However, he renounced the $400,000 prize money that came with the